Do not be surprised by persecution (1 Peter 4:12)

INTRODUCTION. This fairly long post is a consideration of the New Testament’s prominent teaching on persecution and how we, as American disciples, can respond to it when it comes.

One of the young women at our church has taken a stand for Christ at her school and has thereby placed her job at risk. Her school wanted all the teachers to affirm the school’s LGBTQ and pro-abortion stances and this teacher refused. Praise the Lord that she refused! But her stance has definitely jeopardized her job. In fact, it would be an answer to prayer if she does not lose her job. Suddenly, her faith in Christ has become much more expensive.

NEITHER UNEXPECTED NOR SURPRISING

Which brings up an important subject. It seems that in America, disciples of Jesus are often surprised when following their crucified Savior, the one who was despised and forsaken of men, suddenly becomes painful or expensive or risky. This is very curious to me, not that a follower of Jesus would suffer some form of persecution, but that being persecuted for their faith would come as an unexpected surprise to any disciple of Jesus. The New Testament, start to finish, is full of declarations and examples announcing to the believer that persecution and affliction will certainly come upon them simply because they follow Jesus. Some of the best-known passages follow. Even a cursory reading of these makes it unambiguously clear that persecution and hatred from the unbelieving world should be expected, and the question is not “if” persecution will come, but “when” and “how.”

2 Timothy 3:12 – Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

COMMENT. Paul is preparing Timothy to take over his ministry of the gospel, so he tells Timothy of the persecution that will be coming to him. Paul states categorically that Timothy will be persecuted. In fact, the only way for Timothy to avoid persecution is to for him to not desire to live a godly life. This, of course, is not an option, because all believers “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6). All true disciples will be persecuted, and “all” means all.

1 Peter 4:12 – Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.

COMMENT. In Peter’s letter to believers experiencing the fires of testing, he takes time to explicitly state the case about persecution. Do not be surprised by any fiery ordeal, as though it is something strange. It is not strange; it is normal. Fiery ordeals (like persecution and affliction) are normal parts of the Christian life which the Lord brings in for our testing. The Lord brings an ordeal to test our faith and to prove that it is the genuine article. Instead of groaning in the unexpected pain, rejoice that you have been considered worthy to suffer for Jesus’ sake.

1 Thess. 3:3, 4so that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this. For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know.

COMMENT. Again, as Paul writes to these new believers under the heavy artillery of intense persecution, his primary encouragement is for them to stand firm. There is little of what we would call sympathy or empathy. For the apostle Paul, the issue is obedience. Will these professed disciples of Jesus in Thessalonica endure their appointed affliction and continue to profess Christ, or will they collapse under the pressure and make a shipwreck of their faith? As Peter has said (above), we are destined for this. Persecution and affliction are our appointed duties. Therefore, the true disciple will stand firm.

Matthew 10:16 (10:21, 22) – “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.”

COMMENT. Anyone who knows anything about sheep and about wolves knows that what Jesus describes here is a dangerous situation for the sheep. Sheep are defenseless, slow, frail, docile animals, the very definition of the word “prey.” By contrast, wolves are vicious, cunning, fast, and strong. They travel in packs, relentless predators in pursuit of their prey. And Jesus sends His new covenant disciples out as sheep in the midst of wolves. It seems almost a death sentence. Sending sheep into the midst of wolves would be akin to something extreme like telling His disciples to take up their cross and follow Him.

The gospel mission requires that Jesus’ disciples are willing to go wherever He sends them as sheep in the midst of wolves. (“We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” – Romans 8:35) Not all will be killed for their faith, but some certainly will (Matt. 10:21). Not all will be scourged (10:17), but all will be hated because of Jesus’ name (10:22). And despite these dangers and threats, the disciple obeys His good shepherd (John 10) and goes out into the midst of a world of wolves, proclaiming from the housetops (Matt. 10:27) that men should repent and turn to God (Acts 26:20). Persecution is real for sheep among wolves.

John 15:18-20 – “18 “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”

COMMENT. Jesus is in the Upper Room giving His apostles, and by implication, His new covenant church, final instructions for life on mission before His crucifixion, and part of the necessary instruction has to do with the persecution His church will experience. Jesus’ message in these verses is clear: “The world hates you and they will persecute you.” While possibly unsettling and uncomfortable, these words are certainly unambiguous. Jesus leaves no room for misunderstanding, and it is the naïve and foolish disciple who is caught by surprise when the world reveals its true colors in hatred and persecution.

These are just some of the more prominent examples of the New Testament’s predictions of the persecution and hardship that will come upon disciple’s of Jesus just because they follow the King of kings. So, it would seem that believers would expect affliction to come.

THEN, WHY ARE WE SURPRISED?

But in America, it is easy to miss even these blatant messages and to overlook or downplay our promised persecution. Despite these scriptural billboards, we are often shocked when our alienation from the world produces painful consequences. So, why are we still surprised, even with all these promises?

Perhaps the most significant reason is the messages that believers receive from pulpits in America. The overwhelming majority of preaching pastors in America will not deliver a single sermon in their preaching lifetime on persecution. Ever. For the pastor, sermons on persecution are not popular with most congregations, so it is best to avoid them. Also, it is possible the pastor doesn’t really believe in persecution, so why would he tell his congregation about it?

Another factor is the idea that real persecution will never come to America. For those pastors who do preach on persecution when their text demands it, many of them will also add a phrase like, “Of course, persecution has not come to America yet.” This phrase is said such that the congregation can relax, secure in the knowledge that, not only has persecution not come to America yet, but, if we play our cards right and continue to behave ourselves as decent, quiet, law-abiding Christians, it probably never will. This is dangerous thinking, because, if we consider Paul’s teaching in 2 Tim. 3:12 (see above), the fact that we are not experiencing persecution in America can only be attributed to the fact that we are not “living godly in Christ Jesus” or because we are not vocal enough in our witness for Jesus that the world feels a compulsion to silence us.

But I think also a disciple can be surprised by sudden affliction because, even though they were prepared to suffer and expected that their bold witness for Jesus would draw enemy fire from the world, the timing took them off guard. With the woman who I mentioned at the top of this post, she knew that her biblical view of human sexuality and her view that abortion is murder were in conflict with most at her school, but she did not realize that her Christian values could put her job at risk. The world’s hatred of Christ was suddenly vented on her. So, in America, even devoted disciples can be stunned when Christ’s words are suddenly manifested in real life. And, for right now, these sudden but not life-threatening attacks from the world will be more economic and psychological than physical. A missed promotion. Losing a job. A rejected application. Lost relationships. Ostracism, alienation, loneliness. But the severity will increase, because the Scriptures call for it and the Scriptures must be fulfilled. There will be imprisonments and scourging. There will be oppression and violence and death.

WHAT SHOULD WE DO?

In the face of these promises of persecution and affliction, what should the disciple of Jesus do? As in all matters of faith and godliness, the believer is to see the example that Jesus gave us, that we should follow in His steps. “While being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). And we are to continue boldly “pressing on toward the goal for the prize” (Phil. 3:14), not letting our promised persecution derail us, but rather enduring the suffering the Lord allows as we continue on in obedience.

SDG                 rmb                 8/31/2022                   #564

Beware of men, but do not fear them (Matthew 10:16-39)

Is it possible for a person to be on their guard against a very real threat without fearing that threat? In Matthew 10:17, Jesus tells His disciples to “beware of men” because they will hate you and will seek to kill you. But then later in the chapter, He says three times for His disciples not to fear (10:26, 28, 31). Isn’t this a contradiction? How can you beware of a person without also fearing that person?

In Matthew 10, Jesus is speaking as King to all His armies of all the ages and telling them about the battle conditions that His disciples will face. What is striking about the passage from 10:16-39 is the number and the constancy of the threats facing Christ’s would-be disciples. Before our Lord even begins recruiting, He clearly tells of the high cost of being one of His followers, and of how you will be hated by all because of His name (10:22), yet Jesus does not appear to mention a single offsetting benefit. This is a most unconventional means of collecting an army of followers!

In this study, we will look at Jesus’ charge to His troops in 10:16, and at the commands He issues to “beware of men” (10:17), but not to fear men (10:26, 28, 31). Our purpose is to understand these instructions from Jesus, and then see how they apply to us in our lives.

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” – Matthew 10:16

First, then, we want to study Jesus’ charge to us as His soldiers. In Matthew 10:16, our Lord deploys His troops. “Behold, I send you out.” As disciples of Jesus, we need to be aware that we have been called into His army to be sent out. Sent out to do what? To be His witnesses (Acts 1:8). To be His ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20). To be fishers of men (Matthew 4:19). So, we see that the King has sent us out.

Second, we are sheep in the midst of wolves. There can hardly be a greater mismatch. Sheep are utterly defenseless, and wolves are notoriously deadly. In Romans 8:36, Paul says, “We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” The disciple needs to understand that his is a dangerous calling of total commitment. To follow Jesus is to be a sheep among wolves. We are the hated and the hunted.

Therefore, since we are sent out as sheep among wolves, we must be shrewd (wise) as serpents and innocent as doves. Knowing that he has been sent out by his King into a dangerous combat, the disciple must be very wise. What you lack in ferocity and power you must make up for with shrewdness, with canniness. With wisdom we elude the enemy while loudly proclaiming Jesus.

APPLICATION: Although our “battle conditions” here in America still seem fairly benign, we must remember that we are called to be wise as serpents. We are still sheep in the midst of wolves and must advance the Kingdom and proclaim the gospel with shrewdness and cunning. We operate as innocent as doves as we scheme for the gospel. We use ingenuity and craft to “stay under the radar” while advancing the gospel deeper into enemy territory.

“But beware of men.” – Matthew 10:17

BEWARE OF MEN

Notice what Jesus does not say. He does not say that His disciples are to be frightened of men and, therefore, to run away from men. He does not say that His disciples are to avoid conflict by avoiding confrontation and proclamation. He simply tells them that they should “beware of men.” This is a tactical command from the King to His soldiers. When you go out under the banner of Jesus, realize you will be hated (John 15:18ff). Therefore, as a practical consideration, you need to be wary of those who hate you and seek your destruction. We are sheep among wolves, so we remain physically vulnerable to death. Jesus commands us to beware of men because He knows that, on our gospel mission, men will try to kill us (Psalm 37:32).

So, do not be naïve! “He who is not with you is against you” (Matthew 12:30). Do not trust those who speak peace with their mouths while they plot to kill you. “There are many who fight proudly against me” (Psalm 56:2). As Jesus’ soldiers, we have a boldness and a zeal for the work of the Kingdom that is tempered by a holy wisdom. We are to beware with boldness.

THEREFORE, DO NOT FEAR MEN

26 Therefore do not fear them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be revealed or hidden that will not be known.” – Matthew 10:26

28 “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”

– Matthew 10:28

31 So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.” – Matthew 10:31

Now the King gives His soldiers the supreme command: “Do not fear men.” Three times in this brief section, the Lord tells us not to fear. As a tactical consideration, it is wise to beware of men, but our wariness of men must never cross over into fear of men. The only one who is worthy of our fear is the Lord Himself (Matthew 10:28). Negatively, the Lord is the One who can throw soul and body into hell (10:28), so He should be feared, but positively, the Lord is the One who has bought us at the price of His own Son on the cross. Therefore, we serve Him and worship Him in reverential fear because we have experienced His power. If we fear the Lord, we need to fear nothing else (see Luke 12:4-5). Again, only the Lord is worthy of our fear.

In Old Testament and New, the Lord displays His power and His faithfulness so that His people will trust Him and love Him with a reverential fear.

In Psalm 56:4, the psalmist asks, “What can mere man do to me?”

In Psalm 27:1, “the LORD is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear?”

In Isaiah 43:1, the LORD says, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine.” If we are redeemed by the LORD, what is there to fear?

In Psalm 103:11, the psalmist declares, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is the LORD’s lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.”

In Romans 8:31, Paul testifies, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

1 John 4:18 proclaims, “Perfect love casts out fear.”

To fear man when the Lord has called us to salvation and has promised He will never leave us or forsake us is to call the Lord’s power into question. Therefore, the professing Christian must be very aware of where he places his fear. The author of Hebrews writes,

“But my righteous one shall live by faith; And if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him” But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul. – Hebrews 10:38-39

The main teaching of Matthew 10, then, is that we are to faithfully proclaim the gospel with wisdom and with fearlessness. Wisdom, because we are vulnerable sheep in the midst of ravenous wolves, but fearlessness, because no threat of man can take away our eternal reward.

APPLICATION: One of the goals of our sanctification and our discipleship is to arrive at that state of mind, that settledness of soul, where we are so convinced of the truths of God’s Word and of the power of our God that no threat of man would cause us to tremble. For the disciple of Jesus, we aim for ability to say, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21), without hesitation and with full conviction. We long for that place where our grip on the Resurrection is so tight that it is as if we were already glorified (Romans 8:30). We overcome fear by the power of the gospel.

Here are ways that I strive to reach that place of fearlessness:

  • Meditate on and study the Resurrection passages in the Bible until you are convinced that you personally will rise with the saints on the Last Day. The certainty of the Resurrection will drive away fear of death.
  • Spend time deeply considering the power of God as displayed in creation and as demonstrated in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. From the earliest chapters of Genesis, God makes promises, and then He keeps those promises. This requires ultimate sovereignty over all the affairs of His universe. And God has made promises to His people which He will certainly keep. Meditate on these truths until you fully believe the unlimited power of the living God. When you grasp God’s power and believe that He loves you as His child, the fear of man and the fear of death and the fear of the future will lose their hold on you.

SDG                 rmb                  10/7/2021                   #439

Sheep among wolves (Matthew 10:16)

The world today is an increasingly wicked place. At least that is what I feel. Now whenever I go out into the fray, so to speak, there is a faint but tangible sense of malice and of threat. The environment is hostile, and that hostility is caused by a growing wickedness, and I have begun to feel the feelings of the hunted. And no, I don’t think claims of my own paranoia are well-founded. Rather, I believe I utter words of sober truth (Acts 26:25). Satan has been released from the abyss (Revelation 20:7) and the man of lawlessness (2 Thessalonians 2:3), although not yet officially revealed, is furiously working his campaign of destruction. Wickedness and overt transgression are everywhere rampant and are spreading like an aggressive cancer. And so, I ponder how I, as a disciple of Jesus and as a child of God, should respond to all this.

The Lord Jesus Himself gave His disciples instructions about this, for He knew what was to come.

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” – Jesus in Matthew 10:16

If I occasionally feel hunted by the evil of our day, what did Jesus’ first disciples feel when Jesus gave them this picture? Here is a picture of sheep among wolves. Sheep are defenseless animals. They cannot run well. They cannot fight at all. They are remarkably un-clever, and they die fairly easily. Wolves, on the other hand, are vicious predators who travel in packs to conquer their prey. They are smart and strong and fast with a mouth full of sharp teeth designed to rip apart the flesh of their prey. A picture of sheep in the midst of wolves is a story that will not have a happy ending for the sheep. And yet this is the picture Jesus gives His followers.

But Jesus also gives His followers instructions for what to do when they find themselves in this seemingly hopeless situation. “Be shrewd (prudent; practically wise) as serpents and innocent as doves.” In other words, realize that the world is full of wolves, and that they would like nothing better than to destroy you. But also know that the Lord is there to protect you. He is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11) and will defend you from the wolves. Since the world is full of wolves, live wisely. Since you are a defenseless sheep, live wisely so that you can proclaim Christ’s excellencies (1 Peter 2:9) as long as possible. By all means, avoid spending a lot of time in wolf dens! When you as the sower go out to sow (Matthew 13:3), be alert for wolves at the edges of the field.

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” – Jesus in Matthew 10:16

As sheep in the midst of wolves, we realize that our mission of being witnesses for Jesus (Acts 1:8) is inherently risky. There is an awesome cost, but we have accepted that cost as not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18). For the glorious truth of the gospel is that, if I am a sheep belonging to Jesus, I will never die (John 11:25-26). And so, I go on wisely but boldly sowing seed and making known the mystery of the gospel and proclaiming Christ’s excellencies, trusting that He who sent me out is also He who will forever defend me from the wolves.

SDG                 rmb                 7/6/2021                     #421